Project 52 – “long exposure”

Welcome to week three!

If Project 52 is new to you (so much rhyming!), check out this post to get a bit of an explanation/recap on the whole thing.

This week’s challenge over at /r/picturechallenge was “long exposure”. My first thought was “of course this is the challenge in the dead of winter,” but then I starting thinking on the… ahem… brighter side. I’ve been meaning to try my hand at a specific type of light paining photo – one that I only feel comfortable trying out under very specific circumstances, the best/safest of which involves it being very cold and snowy outside. The combination was obvious and natural, so it was time for a steel wool fireworks show!

Long Exposure - resized for blog


Needless to say, this was a fun one to get, although next time I think I’ll get my wife to come out and act as official assistant, because this would be *WAY* easier with someone to hit the shutter button for you.

Before we get to the actual shot, a little bit about the prep and ingredients for this little number.

First, find yourself a whisk. As you can imagine, you’re likely not going to want to make any omelettes with it once you’re finished, so grab a cheap one from the dollar store or a thrift shop. You’ll just need to make sure the it has a little loop or hole at the end of the handle. Why, you ask? Well, because you’re going to attach it to a rope, chain or (in my case) a dog leash:

Whisk and leash

The hole at the end of mine was the wrong size for my leash, so I just used a couple of cable ties as stand-ins, and they worked a treat.

Next, you’ll need the steel wool itself:

steel wool

I opted for the #0000 super-fine variety, although I have it on good authority that anything finer than 0 will work as well. The more coarse the wool, the larger and sparks (and the fewer of them there are).

If you haven’t used steel wool before, here’s what you get in the pack (this pack had 16 pads in it, so you really only need to buy one at a time unless you’re planning on going really buck-wild with the pictures in any given session – though if you’ve got the space, why not stock up?)

steel wool pad


You can unroll the pad a fluff it out a bit first if you like (it helps a bit with air circulation and the general sparkyness of the whole procedure), but what you’re going to do next is just stuff it inside the business end of the whisk, like so:

joined forces


Once you’ve got that assembled, bring it outside along with your camera, a tripod and a lighter.

A note about safety and clothing: a good rule in life is “don’t be stupid about stuff” and that absolutely applies here. The nice thing about doing something like this during an Ottawa Valley winter is that you’re going to be good and bundled up/covered just to spend time outside, but if you do try this in the summer (more on the safety stuff in a minute) you’ll want to make sure you’re wearing pants and long sleeves, preferably attached to a hoodie (to keep your hair from catching fire), and preferably black (to keep you as out of the picture as possible, unless the opposite is your photographic aim of course). A hood is important. While I was experimenting with various ways to spin this flaming, sparking contraption, I actually ended up whallopping myself on the head with it. The impact left me with a good reminder of why my aforementioned rule is a good one, but my hood kept my scalp from becoming on-fire, so on balance it was still a (marginal, not-at-all-boast-worthy) win for common sense and planning. On the safety issue, I’d love it to go without saying that since what you’re doing is sending thousands of flaming sparks hurtling out in all directions around you, you need to make incredibly sure that you’re not going to burn anything down while you’re at it. This is important. Don’t burn stuff down.

This means that if you are doing this in the summer/fall/spring/winter-when-you’re-not-in-an-open-space-covered-with-snow, you need to make sure the ground is either: A) not flammable (note well that not flammable and inflammable ARE NOT THE SAME THING), B) good and wet due to recent significant rainfall, or even better, C) both.

So, now that that’s out of the way, the actual shot set-up! Since this shot requires a long exposure (remember the theme, way back at the top?) you’re going to be doing this at night, or at least dusk. Get your camera set up on the tripod, and find the framing/scene you want. Then you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to stand. I brought along a little LED flashlight, and when I decided where I’d be, I stuck the flashlight in the snow, facing the camera. I then used that point of light to find the focus, before switching to manual focus, because getting a good, sharp picture in the dark is beyond my capabilities, and I’m more than happy to admit that.

If you have a remote that works with your camera from however far away you’re going to be, great! Set the self-timer, click the button, then light the steel wool and start whirling the whisk around. The faster you go, the more sparks there are, and you might be surprised (possibly even relieved) the first time to discover that it doesn’t explode into sparks all on its own. The spinning throw enough air through the whisk to make the sparks happen. If you just hold a lighter to it, it’ll get red, and there’ll be some sparks, but the action really happens when, well, the action happens.

If you don’t have a remote, or can’t use it for whatever reason (distance, etc), you’ll either need an assistant to hit the shutter when you’re ready (this will prove to be the best overall option, since it will allow you to start the lighting and then have the shutter open at just the right time) or (as I had to do) you’ll need to set the self-timer a little longer to let you click the shutter, run to where you need to be, light the wool and start spinning. This is, as you may be able to guess, the most difficult and arduous route. *sigh*

Anyway, it worked! Sort of. I’m still going to be experimenting with it for a while, but it’s a start, I think, and it was great to actually get out and try it out finally.

Technical Details

Gear: Nikon d800e + Nikkor 35mm 1.8 lens + tripod (plus all that other stuff)

Shot: f/8.0 | 30 sec. | ISO 500 | 35mm

Bonus shots (first and last from the session, as it happens):

long exposure runner up 1 (resized)

long exposure runner up 2 (resized)


Thanks for reading! See you next week!


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